2020 Big Ten Conference College Baseball Preview
The Big Ten’s 2019 season will be most remembered for Michigan’s run to the College World Series finals, where it became the first team from the conference to play for the national championship in more than 50 years. The Wolverines fell one win shy of the title against Vanderbilt and carried the banner for the conference well on the sport’s biggest stage.
The conference also produced a thrilling conference race that went down to the final weekend of the regular season before Indiana claimed the title under first-year coach Jeff Mercer. The Big Ten Tournament didn’t disappoint either, as Ohio State upset the favorites to win its second title in four years. The conference produced five NCAA Tournament teams, matching its best year.
In short, the Big Ten, which lagged behind the other power conferences on the diamond for the better part of the last 40 years, continued its revival. That momentum is expected to carry over into 2020. Michigan begins the season ranked No. 8 and is aiming for a return to Omaha. Ohio State joins it in the Top 25 at No. 24, setting up the possibility of a showdown of the two rivals for the conference title. Minnesota righthander/outfielder Max Meyer was voted a first-team Preseason All-American by major league scouting departments and has the potential to be a first-round pick this June.
Whether 2020 matches 2019’s highs remains to be seen, but the Big Ten is clearly a conference to watch this spring.
Player of the Year: Dillon Dingler, C, Ohio State
Dingler has been an integral part of Ohio State’s lineup since he arrived on campus and quickly became a team leader behind the plate. He’s the Buckeyes’ leading returning hitter after hitting .291/.392/.424 as a sophomore and he’s also a strong defender. With a strong junior year, he could play his way up draft boards, possibly sneaking into the first round, and provide the Buckeyes with needed experience at the heart of the lineup.
Pitcher of the Year: Max Meyer, RHP, Minnesota
Meyer has established himself as the conference’s most talented pitcher over his first two years of college. His fastball-slider combination is one of the best in the country and helped him go 5-3, 2.11 with 87 strikeouts in 76.2 innings as a sophomore. He also is a regular in the Minnesota lineup, but it’s on the mound that he truly shines.
Freshman of the Year: Jimmy Obertop, C/1B, Michigan
Obertop is the latest premium recruit to arrive in Ann Arbor under coach Erik Bakich and recruiting coordinator Nick Schnabel. He’s physical and shows advanced feel behind the plate and has the versatility to play first base as well, which will help him get in the lineup this spring. He has a powerful bat and could soon find himself hitting in the middle of the order for the Wolverines.
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Predicted Order of Finish (2019 record)
1. Michigan (50-22, 16-7)
The Wolverines last year put together a special June, going from one of the last four teams to make the NCAA Tournament field to the runners-up in Omaha in just a month. Along the way, they proved to the nation just how good they were and provided the much-anticipated breakthrough Michigan had been looking for under coach Erik Bakich. Now, Michigan must replace key contributors including 2019 Big Ten Player of the Year Jordan Brewer and starters Tommy Henry and Karl Kauffmann. Still, there’s plenty of talent in Ann Arbor. Righthander Jeff Criswell (7-1, 2.72) is back to lead the rotation after spending the summer with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. He’ll get help from lefthanders Ben Dragani and Steve Hajjar, who both missed last season due to injury. Michigan’s lineup features junior outfielders Jesse Franklin (.262/.388/.477, 13 HR) and Jordan Nwogu (.321/.435/.557, 12 HR, 16 SB). Franklin was voted a Preseason All-American, though he will miss the start of the season due to injury. Shortstop Jack Blomgren (.314/.417/.401) and catcher Joe Donovan (.234/.314/.421, 9 HR) are back to keep the Wolverines strong up the middle. If Michigan continues to play the kind of loose, inspired baseball it did last June, it has all the talent it needs to return to the College World Series.
2. Ohio State (36-27, 12-12)
The Buckeyes last season went into the Big Ten Tournament needing to win it to advance to the NCAA Tournament. They did just that, powered by relief ace Andrew Magno, who was named tournament MVP. Now, Ohio State is out to make it three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament—and possibly more. With its entire rotation of sophomore righthander Garrett Burhenn (6-4, 3.96), redshirt sophomore lefthander Seth Lonsway (8-4, 3.70) and junior lefthander Griffan Smith (7-5, 4.66) returning, as well as junior catcher Dillon Dingler (.291/.392/.424), the Buckeyes have a strong core to build around. They’ll need to replace sluggers Dominic Canzone and Brady Cherry in the lineup, but it’s a veteran group. Getting back shortstop Noah West, who missed most of last season due to injury, is important and should improve the Buckeyes’ defense. With its rotation, Ohio State will be tough to beat in Big Ten play and should set up well for the postseason.
3. Minnesota (29-27, 15-9)
The Golden Gophers came into last season with big expectations and they largely lived up to them. But an ambitious early season schedule, played entirely on the road because their winter home, US Bank Stadium, was being used for the Final Four, ultimately sunk them. Despite finishing tied for third in the Big Ten standings, Minnesota was left off the NCAA Tournament bubble, done in by a subpar RPI. But it should be able to come right back in 2020. First-team Preseason All-American Max Meyer (5-3, 2.11) is the best pitcher in the conference and can play a variety of roles. He has experience as a starter and reliever and will also help the Gophers as an outfielder. Minnesota has several other high-end arms around Meyer on the staff, including Sam Thoresen (4-3, 5.24) and Patrick Fredrickson (2-5, 5.59), who stumbled last season but was excellent as a freshman on the 2018 super regional team. Sophomore righthander J.P. Massey (0-1, 5.40) is a breakout candidate in the bullpen. Offensively, Minnesota has some holes to fill, but infielders Jordan Kozicky (.237/.320/.485, 11 HR) and Zack Raabe (.271/.337/.316) are back, as is outfielder Easton Bertrand (.252/.327/.490). Minnesota will need some newcomers to step up offensively, but with Meyer leading the way, it has the overall talent to contend.
4. Indiana (37-23, 17-7)
The Hoosiers last season won the Big Ten in coach Jeff Mercer’s first season at the program’s helm, edging Michigan on the final weekend. It was Indiana’s first title since 2014 and a fitting close to the best decade in program history. Now, the Hoosiers will have a bit of a new look in 2020, having lost familiar faces like two-way star Matt Lloyd, outfielder Matt Gorski and starters Tanner Gordon, Pauly Milto and Andrew Saalfrank. They did get some good news when third baseman Cole Barr (.255/.388/.565, 17 HR) and outfielder Elijah Dunham (.310/.434/.542, 8 HR) chose to return for their junior seasons despite being drafted. Drew Ashley (.284/.399/.400), the Hoosiers’ leading hitter last year as a sophomore, is back, as is senior shortstop Jeremy Houston (.210/.311/.295), who has premium defensive ability. On the mound, Indiana must replace its entire rotation. Sophomore righthander Gabe Bierman (4-0, 3.56) and junior lefthander Tommy Sommer (4-3, 3.40) both got starting experience last year and can handle the role, while redshirt junior righthander Connor Manous (1-1, 2.68) gives the Hoosiers a weapon at the back of the bullpen. Indiana needs some newcomers to emerge and returning players to take a step forward, but there’s no question it has the talent on hand to remain in the mix at the top of the Big Ten and eye a fourth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
5. Iowa (31-24, 12-12)
In back-to-back seasons, Iowa has won an important nonconference series in early May only to see its regional hopes fizzle down the stretch when it has been unable to capitalize on that momentum. The Hawkeyes this season have a deep, experienced roster that will look to avoid a similar fate in 2020. Iowa returns junior first baseman Izaya Fullard (.307/.376/.422) and senior catcher Austin Martin (.294/.369/.396), its two leading hitters. That duo, along with senior outfielder Ben Norman (.251/.335/.396, 6 HR, 14 SB) gives the Hawkeyes some key pieces to build around offensively. The pitching staff should be the Hawkeyes’ strength, however. They return starters Grant Judkins (4-7, 2.72) and Cam Baumann (4-5, 5.29) and closer Grant Leonard (2-3, 3.37, 14 SV). Redshirt sophomore lefthander Jack Dreyer, the best prospect of the group, is also back after missing all but two starts last year due to a shoulder injury. If he can regain the form he had before his injury, he can be a difference maker. The Hawkeyes have the talent and experience to write a different ending this spring.
6. Maryland (29-29, 12-12)
The Terrapins this fall brought in the No. 21 recruiting class in the nation and the Big Ten’s top-ranked class. That injection of young talent should help push Maryland back into the conference’s top tier—the question is how quickly that will happen. While the Terps lost their top two hitters from 2019, they return junior outfielder Randy Bednar (.288/.362/.531, 12 HR, 12 SB), sophomore first baseman Maxwell Costes (.266/.397/.547, 15 HR) and junior catcher Justin Vought (.220/.353/.430, 10 HR), who all give the lineup firepower. Freshmen outfielders Tucker Flint, Troy Schreffler and Bobby Zmarzlak all have breakout potential, which would add even more depth to the lineup. The Terps must replace ace Hunter Parsons and closer John Murphy, their two most reliable pitchers. Righthanders Trevor LaBonte (1-6, 5.98) and Zach Thompson (3-6, 5.08) got experience in the rotation but will need to take a step forward in 2020. Freshmen Nick Dean, David Falco and Ryan Ramsey could all end up pitching in key roles, but redshirt freshman Sean Burke may offer even more upside. He missed last season due to injury and a healthy return would be a big boost. If Maryland can take a step forward on the mound, it figures to do so in the standings as well.
7. Nebraska (32-24, 15-9)
Following Nebraska’s appearance in the Oklahoma City Regional last year, Darin Erstad announced he was stepping down after eight years as head coach to spend more time with his family. The announcement was a surprise, as the former all-star led his alma mater to the 2017 Big Ten title and four regional appearances. The Huskers hired Will Bolt, another alumnus, to take over as head coach. Bolt returns to Lincoln after five years as an assistant coach at Texas A&M. He inherits a team that returns a good bit of experience in the lineup but will have a new pitching staff. The team’s top four hitters all return, including junior outfielder Aaron Palensky (.320/.420/.482, 7 HR), who led the team in most offensive categories. Sophomore infielder Spencer Schwellenbach (.275/.415/.400) is also back after impressing as a freshman. On the mound, Nebraska must replace its entire weekend rotation. Sophomore righthander Colby Gomes (0-3, 4.09, 13 SV) headlines the returners after serving as the team’s closer last season. Retooling the pitching staff will be Bolt’s most important task going into the season and how quickly Nebraska’s new-look staff comes together will go a long way to determining how successful his first season is.
8. Illinois (36-21, 15-9)
The Fighting Illini last year returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since their super regional appearance in 2015. Illinois now must retool after losing several key contributors from that team including its top four hitters and two starting pitchers. It will turn to its large sophomore class, which last year was the No. 24 recruiting class in the country, for most of its answers. Sophomore shortstop Branden Comia (.255/.322/.370) came on strong down the stretch last spring and will hold down the left side of the infield with classmate Cam McDonald (.281/.335/.321). Sophomore catcher Jacob Campbell (.196/.286/.299) came to Illinois with as much hype as anyone in the class and will now be asked to take on a larger role. On the mound, senior righthander Ty Weber (4-3 3.28) is back to lead the rotation and senior closer Garrett Action (2-3, 2.18, 19 SV) returns after leading the nation in saves. Lefthander Nathan Lavender (1-2, 4.08) and righthander Aidan Maldonado (0-0, 6.58) will need to step up as sophomores. Maldonado headlined that 2018 recruiting class and didn’t throw enough strikes to help last spring but put together a solid summer in the Cape Cod League and will now need to do it for the Illini. If the sophomore class is ready to carry the load in the lineup and on the mound, Illinois has big upside.
9. Purdue (20-34, 7-16)
After making an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2018—just the third in program history—Purdue fell back to the bottom of the conference standings in 2019. After the season, coach Mark Wasikowski was hired away by Oregon, ending his three-year tenure at Purdue. The Boilermakers wasted little time in promoting Greg Goff to head coach. Goff had been Purdue’s volunteer assistant coach but has plenty of head coaching experience, having served in that capacity at Alabama, Louisiana Tech and Campbell. While the Boilermakers last season took a step back, there is talent on hand for Goff to work with. Senior outfielders Skyler Hunter (.307/.385/.417) and Cole McKenzie (.317/.407/.371, 10 SB) and senior catcher Zac Fascia (.277/.351/.396) form a strong, experienced core in the lineup. Hunter has been a starter since he arrived in West Lafayette and enters the season 75 hits shy of the program’s career hits record (279). The Boilermakers will get a boost if junior outfielder Ben Nisle can bounce back from the injury that sidelined him most of last season and return to the form he showed in 2018, when he was named to the conference’s all-freshman team. Purdue needs to find more of a power threat after hitting just 11 home runs last season, whether that comes from Fascia, Nisle or a newcomer like freshman first baseman Jake Parr. On the mound, Purdue returns junior righthanders Bo Hofstra (2-2, 1.62, 7 SV) and Trent Johnson (3-3, 2.83) to anchor the staff. Senior righthander Dalton Parker (0-3, 3.47) was the team’s Opening Day starter a year ago but was limited much of the season by injury and a return to form would be a big boost for the staff, as would talented freshman righthander Jett Jackson making a quick transition to college. Purdue has made some big year-to-year swings over the last four years and it could be in for another in 2020, this time back toward Big Ten contention.
10. Northwestern (24-27, 11-13)
The Wildcats last year finished just one game out of eighth place and a spot in the Big Ten Tournament. They’ll be aiming to close that gap in 2020 but to do so, they’ll have to replace several key contributors, starting with shortstop and leading hitter Jack Dunn. Sophomore Shawn Goosenberg (.288/.338/.397, 12 SB) will slide over from second base to take over for Dunn at shortstop. He and redshirt sophomore center fielder David Dunn (.271/.327/.349) will be counted on both in the lineup and up the middle defensively. The Wildcats’ defense should be one of its strengths, further boosted by sophomore catcher Michael Trautwein, who threw out 41 percent of would-be basestealers last year, and the athleticism of senior second baseman Charlie Maxwell and freshman third baseman Evan Minarovic. That defense will benefit the Wildcats’ pitching staff, which is led by returning starters Quinn Lavelle (3-6, 5.04), Ryan Bader (3-4, 5.09) and Mike Doherty (5-1, 3.72). The staff’s wild card is redshirt sophomore righthander Tyler Uberstine, a transfer from Southern California who hasn’t pitched in college but has the biggest arm on staff. The talent level is improving under fifth-year coach Spencer Allen. Now he just has to figure out how best to deploy it.
11. Rutgers (20-31, 9-14)
Following last season, Rutgers announced it would not retain coach Joe Litterio, whose contract was expiring. To replace him, athletic director Patrick Hobbs hired Steve Owens away from Bryant. Owens has won everywhere he’s gone and comes to Piscataway after winning eight straight Northeast Conference titles at Bryant. His task at Rutgers will not be easy, however. The Scarlet Knights have not made the Big Ten Tournament since joining the conference six years ago and have not made a regional since 2007. Still, beyond Owens’ arrival, there is reason for optimism at Rutgers. The team’s strength in 2019 was on the mound and starters Harry Rutkowski (2-6, 4.08), Tevin Murray (4-5, 3.01) and Tommy Genuario (3-5, 3.14) are all back, as is reliable reliver Steven Acosta (3-0, 4.03). Much of last year’s lineup is back as well, led by junior outfielder Mike Nyisztor (.281/.348/.352, 15 SB), who led the team in hitting. The Scarlet Knights should also receive a big boost from the return of redshirt junior shortstop Danny DiGeorgio who missed last spring due to a torn ACL. Rutgers is going to have to improve an offense that ranked last in the conference in runs (206), but its experienced, talented pitching staff can push it forward in 2020.
12. Michigan State (20-34, 8-15)
The Spartans got behind the eight-ball early in 2019 and they were just 4-20 at the start of April. They didn’t pack it in, however, playing above .500 the rest of the way and winning three of their final four Big Ten series. Carrying that second-half form into 2020 will be critical for Michigan State. Senior outfielder Bryce Kelley (.300/.352/.336, 18 SB) returns to be the lineup’s catalyst and junior catcher Adam Proctor (.167/.301/.451, 9 HR) gives the Spartans a power threat, though he’ll need to be more consistent. Redshirt junior center fielder Danny Gleaves returning healthy after a torn ACL limited him last year to nine games will add another speedster to the lineup and give the Spartans a boost. Michigan State’s strength is on the mound, where redshirt junior Mason Erla (2-10, 5.49) will be looking to bounce back and lead the rotation. It has some exciting arms who could make a jump this spring like senior righthander Sam Benschoter, who was up to 96 mph this fall, freshman righthander Adam Berghorst, who also plays football for the Spartans, and junior Zach Iverson, who will also play in the infield and impressed on the mound over the summer in the Great Lakes League. A bounceback 2020 for the Spartans wouldn’t be a surprise but they’ll need to get off to a better start to the season to give themselves a chance.
13. Penn State (22-27, 4-18)
While Michigan State struggled early and turned it around in the second half, Penn State had the opposite problem. The Nittany Lions were 13-3 going into Big Ten play but that record quickly went the other way once conference play began. They lost their first five Big Ten games and were swept in four of their first five conference series. Penn State must now replace leading hitter Jordan Bowersox and ace Dante Biasi, who was drafted in the sixth round. Leading the returners in the lineup are junior center fielder Mac Hippenhammer (.272/.350/.336) and sophomore third baseman Justin Williams (.262/.350/.418). On the mound, Penn State returns junior righthanders Bailey Dees (2-1, 4.27), Conor Larkin (4-2, 3.14), Mason Mellott (6-3, 2.43, 5 SV) and Kyle Virbitsky (2-7, 4.66). Dees, Larkin and Virbitsky figure to factor into the rotation, while Mellott will reprise his role as the Nittany Lions’ top reliever.
Top 2020 Draft Prospects
- Max Meyer, RHP, Minnesota
- Jeff Criswell, RHP, Michigan
- Dillon Dingler, C, Ohio State
- Jesse Franklin, OF, Michigan
- Jordan Nwogu, OF, Michigan
- Seth Lonsway, LHP, Ohio State
- Jack Blomgren, SS, Michigan
- Harrison Rutkowski, LHP, Rutgers
- Ben Dragani, LHP, Michigan
- Jack Dreyer, LHP, Iowa
- Joe Donovan, C, Michigan
- Patrick Fredrickson, RHP, Minnesota
- Isaiah Paige, RHP, Michigan
- Elijah Dunham, OF, Indiana
- Sam Thoresen, RHP, Minnesota
- Drake Davis, RHP, Minnesota
- Randy Bednar, OF, Maryland
- Cole Barr, 3B, Indiana
- Sam Benschoter, RHP, Michigan State
- Tevin Murray, LHP, Rutgers
- Steve Hajjar, LHP, Michigan
- Aidan Maldonado, RHP, Illinois
- Garrett Burhenn, RHP, Ohio State
- Jacob Campbell, C, Illinois
- Nathan Lavender, LHP, Illinois
- Sean Burke, RHP, Maryland
- JP Massey, RHP, Minnesota
- Maxwell Costes, 1B, Maryland
- Willie Weiss, RHP, Michigan
- Chase Stanke, C, Minnesota
- Bobby Zmarzlak, OF, Maryland
- Jimmy Obertop, C, Michigan
- Sam Ireland, OF/RHP, Minnesota
- Ethan Veracumba, OF, Indiana
- Jett Jackson, RHP, Purdue
- Tucker Flint, OF, Maryland
- Sayer Diederich, LHP/OF, Nebraska
- Ted Burton, INF, Michigan
- Colin Czajkowski, LHP, Michigan
- Ryan Ramsey, LHP, Maryland
Best Pure Hitter: Jordan Nwogu, Michigan
Best Power Hitter: Maxwell Costes, Maryland
Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Jesse Franklin, Michigan
Best Athlete: Mac Hippenhammer, Penn State
Fastest Runner: Danny Gleaves, Michigan State
Best Baserunner: Mike Nyisztor, Rutgers
Best Defensive Catcher: Dillon Dingler, Ohio State
Best Defensive Infielder: Jack Blomgren, Michigan
Best Infield Arm: Cole Barr, Indiana
Best Defensive Outfielder: Christian Bullock, Michigan
Best Outfield Arm: Jordan Nwogu, Michigan
Best Fastball: Garret Acton, Illinois
Best Breaking Ball: Max Meyer, Minnesota
Best Changeup: Jeff Criswell, Michigan
Best Control: Max Meyer, Minnesota